On Rocks and Boats
Can I tell you one of my favorite stories that I read this week? This couple named Charlotte and Dave Willner had been paying attention to the news about the new family separation immigration policy that began in May. They are parents themselves and were particularly moved by the images of one little girl whose mother was being patted down by a border patrol officer. Ms. Willner recognized her own daughter in that child’s image. She said, “This is the exact face she makes when she's terrified.” Now, lots of people might be moved by such a picture and try to figure out how to help. The Willners definitely were. They had both once worked for the social media company Facebook, and they currently work for other technology companies. They know how much good social media can do when used well. They also knew that Facebook has a new feature where you can set up a fundraiser and share it with your friends. And, they knew that they were pretty good at researching things. They had all these really helpful tools at their disposal.
Working with another friend, they tried to figure out what would be a good way that they could help people coming across the US border with Mexico. They eventually learned about the work of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. It’s called RAICES for short. This is a legal non-profit organization in Texas that works with new immigrants and people who are refugees. RAICES has a really good reputation and does good work. I’ve seen multiple posts and articles commending them. What caught the Willners' eye was one particular part of their work, their family reunification and bond fund.
To understand why they need that kind of fund, it is helpful to have some background about changes in immigration policy enforcement. I learned about some helpful information about the new family separation policy from a non-profit, non-partisan news organization called the Marshall Project. Before May 7th of this year, if you were caught crossing the border between official border checkpoints without proper documentation, you would face immigration charges in a special immigration court. Families who were caught, or who had presented themselves to immigration authorities to request asylum, were usually detained together in family detention centers. There's one in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. Since 2015, families with kids couldn't be held in that kind of facility for longer than three weeks. A judge said that it was harmful to the children to keep them there longer than that, and that families should be released together so the kids could be with their parents. For the last three years, upon initial arrest, families might be detained for a little while, but, barring suspicion of serious illegal behavior, like child trafficking or drug dealing, they were usually released all together to await their immigration court dates.
Starting this past May, the government began a new policy. People who cross between official check points are no longer allowed to ask for asylum when they meet a border patrol officer in the field (people used to turn themselves in so they could do just that). Things changed once they get arrested, too. Now, rather than send the adults to immigration court, they have to go to federal court to be tried for a federal misdemeanor of cross the border without permission. Remember that all used to be done in immigration court. Only some cases actually went to federal court. Now, everybody goes to federal court. There's one other big change. That's the change that has gotten most of our attention: the family separations. Instead of taking previous court rulings into account that recommended keeping families together during this process, any children who cross with their parents have been taken and funneled into an entirely different agency federal agency than their parent. Remember: The parents aren't even convicted of crimes at this point.
While the parents are being held in federal pre-trial detention, the children are being classified as unaccompanied minors (though they were initially accompanied) and detained by the Department of Health and Human services, often in privately contracted facilities, where they go to wait for their own immigration hearings. The parents often aren't told where their kids are and the kids are often moved to facilities very far from their parents. The parents may be in Texas while the kids are in Florida or New York state. The parents and their lawyers, when they actually have lawyers, are having a very hard time finding the kids once they have been taken. Some parents have been deported without getting their kids back.
Looking at their resources and the enormity of the problem at hand, the Willners decided the thing they could do was to help pay the bond of one parent so at least one person could get out of pre-trial detention and begin the difficult process of finding their kid and being reunited. Every adult's bond will be at least $1500. Much of the time, the bond is between $5,000 and $10,000 dollars, even if the person is an asylum-seeker and has no criminal history. It is hard for them to get bail, in part because bail bond companies don't usually help people in immigration bond proceedings unless they impose very strict requirements on them. RAICES had already been raising money for bonds well before last week and had staff at work to help the parents. Sometimes if you want to help, you help people who've been doing the work longer. Charlotte and Dave Willner started a Facebook fundraiser, hoping to get $1500 together to donate to RAICES that they could help one parent with a low bond get out and get their kid. Just $1500. That seemed like a reasonable donation that they could manage and still feel like they were doing something worthwhile for one family.
They ended up helping way more than one family. I don't know if you've heard about this. As of this morning, Sunday, June 24th, 2018, the little fundraiser that hoped to get $1500 has reached $19,982,160. To put that in perspective, RAICES' own fundraising for all the work they do, not just the bond work, was about $7 million last year. The Willners' fundraiser has been passed around so much that they have raised 2.5 times the nonprofit's yearly needs. RAICES has been raising money on their own, too. They have raised over $5 million dollars on their website. Gobs of other people are giving in other ways, too. Jenny Hixon, the nonprofit's development director, said that they have also received phone calls from literally thousands of people who want to volunteer. People are even offering to come to Texas to help.
What started as a modest goal from one family to help one other family has become millions of dollars that will help thousands of families. RAICES will be channeling the money into two of their programs, the bond fund as well as a fund that provides legal representation to kids who are actually unaccompanied minors. They also are going to share the money with other nonprofits. They know that there are plenty of other groups are doing good work and now is the time for all-hands-on-deck. They will be able to have more lawyers for the parents. They are hiring more people to do the work of finding the kids and getting the parents back in contact with them. And, they will be launching a nationwide network of people who will provide legal support to those who have been detained. They are even working on setting up a network of therapists and psychologists to help families address the likely PTSD and toxic stress of separation. All of this, from a nonprofit that was going to have to stop some of their programming next year. You see, last month, the government stopped funding a grant program that helped some unaccompanied minors get lawyers. That program paid a lot of their bills. RAICES wasn't going to be able to take on any more cases for kids in that situation. But, now they can and they will be able to do so much more. All because one small family used the tools they had to give all the help that they could.
Underdog stories catch people's attention. So do stories of regular people doing extraordinary things. I suspect that's why NPR and the Washington Post and several other news outlets paid attention to the story of the Willner family. The Willners aren't exactly shepherd boys facing down giant warriors, but they are regular people who looked at a monstrously large problem- thousands of children taken from their families- and looked at their resources- social media, the ability to read and research, some money to start off donations- and figured out how to put their resources to work. In that way, they are like David in today's reading.
David could have looked at the challenge before him, a trained and armored warrior, an adult, a confident army... he could have looked at all that was before him and given up before he even started. But he didn't. Armed with five smooth stones, a shepherd's bravery, and the confidence of one who knew he would one day be king, David faced the Philistine's challenge and won, changing the course of not only his life, but the history of his country. The Willners, and all the other people who joined with them to raise literally millions of dollars, they are changing things, too. They will definitely change the lives of all the people RAICES and other nonprofits will help. They helped me feel more hopeful this week, too.
Now, young David and the Willners aren't the only ones who can make a difference. Every single one of us has some divine tool for serving our neighbor at our disposal. David was just a shepherd with slingshot. The Willners are just an upper middle-class family with a computer and a Facebook account. What smooth stones are in your pocket? What gifts to you have that you can use for the public good? The challenge is great. But our God is greater. Like, stop the sea with a word greater. Let's put all these tools to God's use.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources to write this sermon:
Here are a couple articles about the fundraiser
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.